Featured Creature: The Jackdaw

Posted by in Aves, Portfolio

Jackdaw (Corvus monedula)

This month our focus is on a European bird, the Jackdaw.  These Jay-sized mini-crows are an extremely lively and social bunch, and are most (in)famous for their compelling infatuation with shiny objects.  Quite a remarkable character, the jackdaw prefers the glossy black – and sometimes purplish – coat of a gentleman, but is also commonly seen with a grey ‘hooded’ look about the nape. their legs and beaks are black as well, but perhaps the most stunning feature which sets it apart from all other corvids is the crystalline blue eyes.

The Jackdaw spends most of his time and brain power to the practice of thievery. For reasons known only to himself, he is very fond of human beings and will go through a lot of trouble to get himself adopted by one with a nice garden. He captures our attention with amusing tricks, and if especially ambitious, will go as far as to learn our language and strike up a raspy conversation, albeit with limited vocabulary.

His bright eyes are interested in everthing happening around him, and he will not hesitate to bark orders to your dog. Beware of caging this delightful chap however, for not only is it illegal but it will depress him beyond his ability to cope.  He also has a weapon of revenge – anger a Jackdaw and he might just nip you enough to dose you with Campylobacter jejuni, which will see you properly acquainted with your loo for several days.

Example of a Jackdaw who adopted a pair of humans:

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You see, Jackdaws possess the intelligent talents inherent to all members of the Corvidae family,including the cunning ability to plan ahead, but they are also adept readers of the human intent.  His chattering and pirouetting around your patio or kitchen windowsill is simply a ruse to distract you from that bit of foil or that lump of pie crust, and somewhere nearby he has a hip flat of shaggy twigs where he hoards such loot in his quest to be the most pimp bird in the ‘hood.

The species may be the only animal aside from humans known to understand the role of eyes in seeing and perceiving things, according to a new study by Oxford University. While humans often use visual clues to communicate, it wasn’t known whether other animals share this social ability until recently.

Jackdaw eyes, like those of humans, are unusually conspicuous, with dark pupils surrounded by silvery white irises.

“The physical similarities hint that jackdaws use their eyes to communicate in the same ways humans do”, says study leader Auguste von Bayern, a zoologist currently with the University of Oxford. “We can communicate a lot via the eyes, and jackdaws do that as well, in my opinion.”

Von Bayern’s study of hand-reared jackdaws shows that the birds can use a human’s gaze to tell what that person is looking at. “They are sensitive to human eyes because they are sensitive to their own species’ eyes,” she says.

By contrast, previous studies have shown that other animals regarded as intelligent, such as chimpanzees and dogs, find even their own species’ eyes hard to read.



Conflict and Cooperation

In one test, Von Bayern and colleague Nathan Emery timed how long a jackdaw took to retrieve food if a person was also eyeing the prize.They found that the birds took longer to retrieve the food if the human was unfamiliar—someone the bird apparently didn’t trust. The birds were equally sensitive to the gaze of a single eye, such as when the person looked at the food in profile or kept one eye closed. This suggests the jackdaws made the decision to risk conflict solely based on eye motion and not on other cues, such as the direction a potential rival’s head was facing.

In a second experiment, the birds were able to interpret a familiar human’s altered eye gaze to “cooperate” to find food that was hidden from view. The study authors add that more tests will be needed to tell if the birds were able to read eye movements based on their natural tendencies or if it is a learned behavior from being raised by humans.

Jackdaw & Rook

Jackdaws are the second smallest corvid, with the Jay being slightly smaller. Above you can see a Jackdaw in comparison with a Rook (which is about the size of a crow).  Unlike Crows, Rooks, and Ravens, Jackdaws rarely (if ever) feed on carrion or kill other animals and prefer to feed on mostly ground level fare such as berries, seeds, and grubs.

Jackdaws work together to build their swank apartments by dropping sticks into hollow trees, or any other crevice or burrow they can find (such as your chimney, so remember to keep a cap or net on it!). The resulting platform supports the eventual walls and roof which will usually contain a large percentage of fine material such as coins, foil, pop-tabs, cigarette butts, and so-on.

The Jackdaw call, which lends itself in part to their common name of just ‘Daws’, is a cute kak-kak, and distinguishes itself from a crow in its higher-pitched and more chipper cadence. Like the crow, they adapt easily to song and are known to mimic everything from opera to Madonna.

Mythology

The Jackdaw appears in many historical and current works, most notably in Aesop’s fables and the The Ingoldsby Legends written by Richard Harris Barham.

The legends were first printed in 1837 as a regular series in Bentley’s Miscellany and later in New Monthly Magazine.They proved immensely popular and were compiled into books published in 1840, 1842 and 1847. They remained popular through the Victorian era but have since fallen out of fame.

The best known poem is the Jackdaw of Rheims, about a jackdaw who steals a cardinal’s ring and is made a saint. As a priest at the Chapel Royal, Barham was not troubled with strenuous duties and he had ample time to read and compose stories. Although based on real legends and mythology, such as the hand of glory, they are usually deliberately humorous parodies or pastiches of medieval folklore and poetry.

Ancient Greek authors tell how a jackdaw, being a social creature, may be caught with a dish of oil which it falls into while looking at its own reflection. The Roman poet Ovid also saw them as a harbinger of rain (Amores 2,6, 34). In Greek legend, a princess Arne was bribed with gold by King Minos of Crete, and was punished for her avarice by being transformed into an equally avaricious jackdaw, who still seeks shiny things. Pliny notes how the Thessalians, Illyrians and Lemnians cherished jackdaws for destroying grasshoppers’ eggs. The Veneti are fabled to have bribed the jackdaws to spare their crops, and finally in another ancient Greek and Roman myth, “The swans will sing when the jackdaws are silent,” meaning that educated or wise people will speak after the foolish become quiet.

In some cultures, a jackdaw on the roof is said to predict a new arrival; alternatively, a jackdaw settling on the roof of a house or flying down a chimney is an omen of death and coming across one is considered a bad omen (this is more commonly attributed to crows).

Similar to Crow Augery, jackdaws standing on the vanes of a cathedral tower are meant to foretell rain. Czech superstition formerly held that if jackdaws are seen quarrelling, war will follow, and that jackdaws will not build nests at Sázava, having been banished by Saint Procopius.

Jackdaws in Art

Stay tuned this month as we continue to feature Jackdaw art and photography. Enjoy some of our favorite shots from our featured Jackdaw photographer, and be sure to visit his Flickr Gallery here.  You can also jump over to Ted’s gallery here, which we featured last month.

References: UNEP ; The Eugene, OR. Register-Guard, 1972; Systema Naturae & Wikipedia; The University of Oxford press; National Geographic Magazine, April 2009

1 Comment

  1. Great article! Really interesting to find out more about these amazing birds.

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